HAMDEN — Van Jones, the nationally known TV commentator, met with former inmates and Connecticut justice-reform leaders on Monday to push for better housing, job-training and employment opportunities to help those leaving prison to avoid returning.
“When people are trying to turn their lives around, we should throw them a lifeline and not an anvil,” said Jones, who in January was named chief executive of the REFORM Alliance, an organization backed by celebrities including Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and rapper Meek Mill, who want to change the probation and parole systems.
“Too often when people come home from prison, if they’ve done well on the inside, they’ve taken classes, they’ve gotten certificates, they think they’re going to come home and do well, and they find doors closed in their faces,” Jones said. “And the only door that opens is the door back to prison. And that’s wrong. And we can do something about that. This is supposed to be a country that loves the underdog, loves the second chance, loves a comeback story.”
He said minor offenses committed by former offenders on parole or probation can get blown out of proportion, landing people back in prison for six months or more after merely being late for a meeting. The result is lost jobs and apartments, while children are set adrift, returning to state supervision.
During a symposium on possible advancements to the Second Chance Society initiatives of his predecessor, Dannel P. Malloy, Gov. Ned Lamont said a recent visit to a state prison in Cheshire brought home the need to support offenders resettle into their communities.
It was his first prison visit, which brought home the stark difference that incarceration means in people’s lives, he said after a noontime event on the campus of Quinnipiac University.
“The gate closes behind you, the gate in front of you doesn’t open up and you go in there and you just see a lot of young people,” Lamont said. “I saw young men about the same age as my son Teddy. I’m looking forward to the day where they can prove everybody wrong by doing right.”
The event brought several ex-offenders to this university campus to discuss the issues with state and local officials and Jones. Meek Mill was scheduled to attend the meeting, but canceled due to a conflict.
Louis L. Reed of Bridgeport, a former federal inmate and now the national organizer for #Cut50, a reform organization founded by Jones, said he was called on a violation of the terms of his release, for falling behind on child support payments. An ID card given at the time of release would go a long way to helping inmates, he said.
“It’s simplistic things like that,” Reed said.
“It will take both political parties to get us out of this and into a better system,” Jones said during a lunch session with 25 people gathered around a table in the faculty dining room. “The people who don’t quit, who come home job-ready and transformed, we should support them.”
Jones praised the strides Connecticut has made in recent years, including record low prison populations and sharp decreases in violent crime. He supported pending legislation aimed at helping those inmates out on probation stay out of prison for minor infractions, such as being late for a meeting with a probation officer.
During the roundtable lunch discussion on the barriers facing former inmates, state Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook said for those who earn certificates, such as hair-cutting, the documents should not refer to the DOC, he said.
“The next step is really in our communities,” Cook said, stressing the need for offenders to have more mentors in their communities upon their return. “I’ll tell you, from our agency’s standpoint, we’re ready for those next steps.”
Lamont recalled looking into the eyes of the Cheshire inmates, and he realized they didn’t have the advantages growing up that his children had. “I walked in there and they said ‘Governor, welcome to our gated community.’ I thought that was ironic,” Lamont said to chuckles around the table.
In addition to Jones, whose full name is Anthony Kapel Jones, Lamont meet with ex-offenders from the state, as well as Project Longevity state director Brent Peterkin and State Rep. Brandon L. McGee Jr., D-Hartford.
“I think we can all agree we’re not satisfied with progress,” Peterkin said after a morning session with former inmates. “We want to push the envelope forward. We think there’s a lot more work that Connecticut can do. But we also recognize the tremendous progress that Connecticut has made, and I would argue as one of the leaders in our nation as far as criminal justice reform efforts, and also re-entry.”
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